Born March 16, 1846, during an era of extreme racism and sexism, Rebecca Cole overcame all of life adversities, to become the second female physician in the United States. Rebecca Crumpler was the first, graduating only three years prior. Rebecca Cole was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For years Dr. Cole’s family had been enslaved, oppressed and denied both a decent living and medical care, but despite her hardships, she attended the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University), which was the first co-educational high school for African Americans. After graduating from the Institute for Colored Youth in 1863, she went on to receive her medical degree from the Woman’s Medical College in 1867. There she trained with Dr. Ann Preston, the first women dean of the school. Her medical thesis at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania was entitled “The Eye and Its Appendages.”
From 1872-1881 Dr. Cole worked at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. While there she worked with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first white American woman physician to receive a medical degree. Dr. Cole was assigned to the post of sanitary visitor, a position in which a traveling physician would visit families in their homes in slum neighborhoods and instruct them in family hygiene, prenatal, and infant care. It became Dr. Cole’s responsibility to give out practical advice to mothers living in poverty about the best ways to keep their families healthy.
After gaining much experience from working as a traveling physician, Dr. Cole went on to practice medicine in Columbia, South Carolina for a number of years, but then returned to Philadelphia in 1873, where she opened a Women’s Directory Center to provided medical and legal services to destitute women and children.
In January of 1899, Dr. Cole was appointed superintendent of a home run by the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C. An annual report from the home described Dr. Cole as a women who possessed “all the qualities essential to such a position: ability, energy, experience, tact.” And a following report stated that “Dr. Cole herself has more than fulfilled the expectations of her friends. With a clear and comprehensive view of her whole field of action, she has carried out her plans with good sense and vigor which are a part of her character, while her cheerful optimism, her determination to see the best in every situation and in every individual, have created around her an atmosphere of sunshine that adds to the happiness and well being of every member of the large family.” While at the home, Dr. Cole is most appreciated for the difference she was able to make by the way she cared for the children living in the poverty of the city of Washington. Dr. Rebecca Cole practiced medicine for fifty years and died on August 14, 1922.